100 ans Mémoires de la Famine au Liban



Lebanon has rediscovered a drama buried in it’s memory for more than a century: a famine caused by a double blockade in the 1st World War followed by an invasion of locusts that wiped out one third of its population.

In order to know a little more about this tragic episode of our past, USJ (St-Joseph University) and Emile Issa-el-Khoury held a roundtable on the 23rd of April 2015 under the patronage of Fr. Salim Daccache s.j and Mrs. Nayla Kanaan Issa-el -KHOURY at the Amphitheatre Pierre Y. Aboukhater; moderated by Dr. Carla Edde.

The 20 Photos displayed on 1m x 70cm prints have been completely restored by Emile Issa’s Communication Studio, also one of the Media partners of the event.

Here is the extract of the article published in Le Point after the event (ref author at bottom of the page) :

“Between 150,000 and 200,000 people died from malnutrition between 1915 and 1918 according to estimates.

Today, the survivors have passed away, but recently unearthed archives revived this tragedy that pushed men, women and children to die by the roadsides or to feed on tree branches and roots.

This famine “was the greatest catastrophe in the history of Lebanon. Even the civil war between 1975 and 1990 was not in proportion, of this magnitude,” said AFP historian Youssef Mouawad.

It touched Mount Lebanon, which was then an autonomous entity of 450,000 inhabitants under Ottoman rule and the embryo of what would become, in 1920, Lebanon in its current form.

The famine has also been the indirect cause of the expansion of Lebanon, with the incorporation of agricultural areas like the Bekaa (east) to ensure the viability of the young Republic.

– ‘I am hungry, I am hungry’ –

To mark the centenary of the tragedy, the historian Christian Taoutel and father Pierre Wittouck published “The Lebanese people in the turmoil of the Great War 1914-1918”, a book that reveals previously unpublished testimonies of Jesuit fathers.

People “sagged to the ground, experiencing vomiting blood” and bodies of “children were thrown on the rubbish heap,” recounts a witness.

In his diary, an Father Superior says he saw a dead widow in 1917 with her 10 year old son with rats that “had eaten her ears and cheeks.”

He also mentioned cases of cannibalism, like that of a man who killed his children of 8 and 10 years for food.

“The great Turkish reformist Halide Edip said she did not dare sleep in Beirut because she heard all night people shouting ‘Jouan, jouan’ (‘I am hungry’ in Arabic),” notes Mr. Mouawad.

The famine was caused in part by the inability of Mount Lebanon’s mountainous territory to “feed its population more than four months a year,” says historian Issam Khalifeh.

But the situation worsened when “the Allies imposed a blockade” in the Mediterranean to cut the supply of the Ottomans. Then with the land blockade decreed by Djemal Pasha, member of the military triumvirate of the Ottoman Empire, which asphyxiated Mount Lebanon, mostly populated by Maronite Christians protected by France.

Believing that they “could support a campaign of the Allies,” he decided to “starve them before they arm themselves,” said Mr. Khalife.

– ‘My people died –

Worse, in 1915, “the year of the locust”, hordes of locusts “devoured everything,” said the professor at the Lebanese University.

The Ottomans at war “also requisitioned farm beasts” and crops, says Mr. Mouawad.

According to him, this painful episode was obliterated by shame and guilt because “starve is not heroic, unlike the fact of dying defending his village or in the trenches.”

Lebanese families were enriched by selling stored products, said Mr. Mouawad. “Women have sold their bodies for a pittance, men sold their land for an orange” . Entire villages, fell prey to typhus and cholera, and now have been deserted.

Historians, however, refute the term “genocide”, because the intention “to liquidate a population has not been established”, according to Mr. Mouawad.

Officially, the tragedy has been forgotten because it touched Christians much more than Muslims, so it could be a unifying element of the young Republic. Only two paragraphs are devoted to it in schoolbooks and no commemoration to mark it has been held since.

The rare photos remaining today were taken by Ibrahim Kanaan Naoum, President of charities in Mount Lebanon during that period, at the risk of his life.

His photographs of a skeletal woman devouring a piece of bread or starving corpses have become “a historic treasure,” said his grandson, Emile Issa El-Khoury. “My grandfather died later not knowing he was a hero for providing inestimable evidence of this tragedy”

The memory is also cultivated by literature with the Al-Raghif novel (Loaf of Bread), published in 1939 by Toufic Youssef Awwad. And with the poem “My people died” written by the most famous Lebanese author Gibran Kahlil Gibran. “He died in silence for humanity remained deaf to his appeals.”

05.07.2015 11:59:37 – Beirut (AFP) – By Rana Moussaoui – © 2015 AFP